L.A. was baking. The Santa Anas slipped in over the San Gabriel Mountains from the eastern deserts, and not even the ocean provided any relief. I needed some alone time. I’d sit in a lounge chair out back in the early evenings and think—just think, you know. One evening, I decided to sleep out back overnight, for the cool air. At first, my wife, now my ex-wife, didn't say much.
I bought a cot, set it up, and I stretched out, hands behind my head. I looked up at the stars and the moon, or at least the few I could see under the Venice skies. The stillness reminded me of Vietnam, a night war, setting up ambushes and pulling outpost. I could put myself right back there, and for some strange reason, I was free, even if for one night, no worries about school, bills, rent, kid's clothes, new furniture, parties, or trips to the grocery store--nothing.
I really enjoyed myself, and I decided to stay out a couple of nights more. My, now, ex grew suspicious and asked when I was coming inside. I told her I didn’t know, which was true, I didn't.
By the end of one week, I could feel the night air caress me, like I was back in the jungle. Okay, so I was in the city, L.A.'s Westside, just off Lincoln Boulevard, not far from the canals, and the city wasn’t the jungle, but one thing hadn’t changed--the sky. The same stars I saw in Vietnam, I could see in the cosmos, as I lay there behind my rented clapboard home, way before all the celebrities started moving in. It was thrilling. At the time, not even Dennis Hopper had discovered Venice. Mostly, my neighbors were other Chicanos and African Americans, long-time residents of the area.
I decided to stay out in the backyard longer. I was a T.A., finishing my dissertation, and on summer break. I didn’t need to think about work, or what day it was, or the time. Just like in Vietnam, we didn’t know one day from another, until I got wounded. But I’ll ignore that.
One afternoon, I drove to the Army-Navy Surplus Supply in Santa Monica and bought some sand bags, a plastic poncho, and a poncho liner. I dug a hole, about 4x4x4. The dirt wasn’t soft, like the sand in Vietnam, but the tract homes where I rented, a mile or so from the beach, had been built over beanfields, and the dirt was soft enough.
I filled each sandbag, tucked in the loose material at the end, and stacked them on top of each other. Jimmy was just a toddler. He watched, excitedly, pushing his little trucks over the dirt mounds. I stacked the sandbags three rows high, U-shaped around the front of the hole. To the rear, I set up a pup tent and placed the cot inside. In Vietnam, we slept on the ground, air mattresses, if we were lucky. I needed comfort, you know; a cot would have to do. Anyway, I slept just fine, and when it got cold, I covered myself with the poncho liner, a soft, green military quilt.
I’d wake every three hours throughout the night, like I was pulling OP. That way, I could reminisce throughout the night and recreate the ambiente, like the sounds and smells. I’d sit in the hole, peering over the sandbags, toward my neighbor Erik’s yard. One night I counted ten cats pass his fence. But it was the memories that amazed me, things I hadn’t thought of in years, incidents that had just evaporated from my consciousness.
Though, in L.A. I couldn’t see nearly as many stars as in Vietnam, I did begin mapping the constellations I could make out. After a week or so, the moon vanished, the night turned black. We forget how black the night is when we sit in living rooms watching television, eating popcorn, and waiting for bed each night, a slow death, if I do say so myself.
Jimmy’s mom, my ex, didn’t get it. She thought I was having flashbacks. She called my brothers and sisters to talk me into going inside. They didn’t understand, either. Why would he stay outside so many nights, they asked? Why not just drive up the Sierras and go camping?
Me? I just wanted to be left alone. I mean, it was summer. I was on break. They started pissing me off.
Instead of going to my niece’s wedding, my nephew’s baptism, my ex's parents' anniversary, or the summer barbacoas, and parties, I pulled outpost. I bought some heat tablets at the Surplus, and I even started cooking canned food outside, not military C-rations but Campbell's beef stew, chili beans, and Del Monte peaches, stuff like that.
Man, what a rush! I’d remember guys I hadn’t thought about in years. Sometimes I’d see their faces and remember their names; sometimes it was the faces with no names or the names with no faces.
As time passed, I’d talk to them, as if they were real. Come on. Of course, I knew they weren’t, but I was like a kid playing with his imaginary friends. Finally, I was so stimulated, I took a 22 rifle outside to make it more realistic. That didn’t work, so I went to a gun store in downtown Hawthorne, on Sepulveda Blvd. and bought an AR 15, three magazines, and some ammo. I wanted an M-60, but that was going too far. Back at the Surplus on Lincoln, just off Broadway, I found jungle fatigues, jungle boots, and a floppy camo hat.
My ex sent her brother, a Marine who had also served in Vietnam, to come and talk some sense into me. In Vietnam, he’d mostly served in the rear, fixing guys’ paperwork. He’d always been a hellavu typist. We talked for a while. At midnight, he said he was going inside to get some brew from the refrigerator. After we polished those off, he found a half bottle of tequila in the pantry, behind Jimmy’s Cocoa Puffs. We really got drunk and nostalgic about our year in Vietnam, and partying in the rear area after each operation.
He got caught up in the night, as if we’d both been on outpost. He ended up grabbing an extra sleeping bag out of the garage and spending the entire night with me. My ex was so furious, she called his wife to come and get him before I corrupted him. He went with her, but I know he wanted to stay with me outside. His marriage wasn’t too healthy, either, so I didn’t push him.
The next thing I knew, the police were in my backyard asking me a bunch of questions. I tried explaining. The older cop, a vet who’d served in Korea, an ex M.P., got it. He didn’t like that I had loaded rifle, but, I asked, how could I capture it all without a weapon?
My AR-15 wasn’t an automatic, so it was legal, like, I didn’t shoot it, and it wasn’t concealed. He advised me to unload it and keep the ammo in the pouch. As he was leaving, he eyed my outpost and asked, “Are those grenades hanging on the sandbags?” I laughed, “Yeah, but they’re duds, no powder or shrapnel.” He looked at one, shook his head, and took off.
Two weeks later, a shrink from the VA showed up at my place. My ex called the psych unit. This was way before the VA talked about PTSD. The VA had no idea what to do with us. That’s when I realized they were all freaking out. Everybody was taking this all too far. I just wanted to do something for myself, like I said, not worry about the day-to-day crap we all deal with. I just wanted enjoy my summer off, like I was 19 again, and free.
I decided to break camp and start sleeping in the house again, just to get them off my back. I poured the dirt out of the sandbags and refilled the hole. I sold the AR-15 and three-loaded magazines. I got to know the cops well. They were the same ones who’d drive by my street each night, “Just checking to make sure everything’s cool,” the older one would say.
Then, not too soon after, I moved back inside. I didn’t sleep with my wife. She wanted me nowhere near her. That was fine with me. She told me she’d had it, that I should leave, take my in-progress Ph. D. and all. That’s when I yelled that I could be as good a mother to our son as a father. Besides, it was the start of a new semester, and I needed to focus on my research, dissertation, and my classes.
I had no idea then that one day she would take me up on my challenge of parenthood. Sometimes, I ask Jimmy, who is now fifty, "Remember when I pulled outpost behind the house?"
This is a work of fiction, likenesses to people, breathing or not, or to similar situations faced by other vets, or the stories they've told me, is completely coincidental.